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OK. A flurry of activity, I want to say linked mostly to the recent PAX East, but some of it was a little before that. Time for an old fashioned run down:
1) The Metroid Prime Trilogy was recently re-released for the Wii U, and we strolled down memory's lonely dusty lane. I took on the third and final entry in the trilogy, the only one made specifically for the Wii, with crazy face graphics and waggle-aim. I kind of wish I could waggle-aim on every other FPS, to be honest.
2) The makers of Bycatch approached KS to review their drone-based smartphone/card game, and I was eager to see what they were trying to do. I was not disappointed, in both the gameplay and the potential to make players think about the implications of drones and drone warfare.
3) The second game I played at PAX East, one I didn't schedule an appointment for but was pleasantly surprised by: Enter the Gungeon.
4) One of my favorite interviews at PAX East was with the Negatives, who've been working on The Hole Story for a while now. This was for Intel via KS, and they sure did rearrange all the words I typed, but that's just how it goes in this biz. Anyways, can't wait to see what these young women come up with for this game and in the future!
5) And as the saying goes, one of my favorite games of PAX East was another one that swam to the top of the PR pile. Nicole and Anthony of Cardboard Fortress games are crazy creative and two of the nicest people, despite the ravages of PAX East. And their game RESISTOR_is a god damn blast, so much so that I was stoked to pre-order it. Sorry if you missed the boat, but you should still keep an eye out!
Fits and starts, with the tide in and out. Not a good way to retain (entreat?) readership. Nonetheless!
This past weekend I had the luxury of playing Netrunner with some folks who weren't my usual nemesis, and it was a blast. Reminds me why this game has taken up so much of my thought space, and also reminds me that I totally forgot to note here my somewhat recent interview with the fantastic Naomi Clark. She's a game designer and thinker behind many great projects, not the least of which is a Netrunner mod/reskin called Lacerunner. It looks classy as hell and if it gets more folks into Netrunner at large them that's enough for me.
End of the year lists get me down, mostly because of the numbers and the hype. I'm more interested in what my friends liked by the end of the year, but they can't usually be bothered, or they are at the point in their lives where that list is dominated by their children. Which is cool, most of their children are pretty rad!
That said, I was tapped to write some words on Mario Kart 8 for ye olde Kill Screen, and I went a couple of directions before settling on what you can read here. All those words are true.
Spoiler alert: #1 on the KS list is Kentucky Route Zero, which I've been successfully conning my friends into playing for a couple of weeks. Nice to know I'm in alignment with sharp folks.
I jammed through this pretty hard, which is not the way I feel it should be played. Take your time. Enjoy the pitter-patter of little toadstool feet. Find those golden mushrooms. Treat it like a vacation. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker will guide you.
What I don't really get to, because I assumed my editor didn't want to wade through another potential 15k words, is what I played in preparation for Alien: Isolation. I didn't watch the original movie, though maybe I should have, even if I've seen it a couple times before. Didn't really consider anything that might be attached to the "horror" designation. As I saw above, not really into horror.
All the preamble to this game keyed in on the atmosphere. It looks great, it sounds great, but will it play great? I wasn't terribly concerned about that even. Playing great is rather subjective.
So, considering A: I before I had even stepped up to review it, I was reminded of two other games, Gone Home and The Stanley Parable. Reminded primarily because I'd had them both in my Steam list forever but hadn't gotten around to them yet. A: I, it had been said before release, would not let you kill the alien. You were outmatched on the offense, your only strategy as Amanda Ripley was to keep an eye on your surroundings and make note of all the best hiding places.
You aren't really hiding from anything in Gone Home, there aren't any enemies to kill. Just a young woman, returning to a home she did not grow up in because the family moved while she was away at college and exploring Europe. And no one is there. The house is empty. I knew this going in, and it was still scary as shit. At the beginning it was the dark, silent hallways. Strange sounds within, pounding rain on the windows, and locked mysterious doors. Though the lead character, Kaitlin, presumably knows a bit of the history going on here, much of what you and she discover is fresh gossip. Parents flailing as parents, lovers, creative and professional beings. A sister lost as a teenager in that typical, sad way, both aggressor and victim.
All of this is picked up as you wander the house and peek through their shit. Familiar ghosts that you left behind but somehow kept living and growing all the more. I imagine my feelings while wandering through the house of learning much of this for the first time were pretty close to what Kaitlin might have actually felt, which is a triumph of both the narrative and its design. By the end, my heart rate had a noted increase as I hurried to the attic to find out what had happened to Samantha. Not because I was being chased or fearful for my own life, but because I was genuinely concerned for my sister.
That's what good art/literature/game-design accomplishes, the transposition of the player/reader into another self so as to gain experiences they might not otherwise access.
Which is why I had such a good time running from the alien. Like Gone Home, the sound and interactive stage were constructed for peak immersion. Anytime I might be threatened to pull out of the narrative, some small click or gurgle or flash ahead drew me forward. It's hard to quit, because just getting to the save point is a thrill. Those save points are so spread out that I was less willing than ever to run and gun or play it loose. Many other games go to great lengths to impart the wisdom of carefully considered steps, but A: I had the gumption to carry through with the consequences of failure in that regard. In many ways it was Gone Home, in space, while being chased by a deadly alien who could, at best, only be distracted away for a moments.
The tension in each is palpable, but while I was afraid for my sister in Gone Home the alien had me sweaty and tense in fear of losing my own life. Which is strange, because in most other games such a situation is mostly an annoyance, a quick reset away. If I die in those games is the game's fault, so we say. But A: I was so clearly designed to put the player into weak, frail, human shoes that to expect otherwise would be a quick disappointment and quicker death.
But you would die, and on the next try, the alien would be a little more mysterious. Not unlike The Stanley Parable, though that mystery is clearly scripted and demands multiple paths. And it's always the user's choice that determines that path. At the beginning though, it doesn't really need to be the same thing twice, though.
You/Stanley die a lot in that game, if you so choose. You can run around willy-nilly and it won't necessarily help. You have to listen and react accordingly, though not as prescribed, which you learn as you play. One of my favorite elements of that game is that, randomly(?) it changes up the order of hallways and rooms. So as you die and die in an effort to plumb every crumb of the narrative, at one point the very beginning is just slightly different. I would feel both confused and energized, like, I've played this hallways so many dang times, there's no way that it was ever like this. But it still (usually) leads to the room with two doors, and there isn't much more than that.
You can run the eerily-light hallway over and over again, but the alien isn't predictable. Each scramble is mostly fresh, though of course the space station doesn't shift once you bleed out so you can get a feel for the hallways and where you need to go and the best spots for hiding as you crab-walk through. But the alien, it mixes things up. The humans and synthetics not so much, but they carry their brand of discomfort.
Mostly though, these three games have you walking and gawking and getting into it. Other titles get the blood pumping by jumps or hordes, but here, you're given a fascinating world with tense conditions and then let off the leash, more or less. I really appreciate being funneled into an experience that doesn't depend solely on my twitchiness or familiarity with how the best-selling games of yore worked.
I was late to the Zero, but that's ok since it's essentially in mid-season right now. And there's no use really describing the game to you, as it wouldn't really ruin the charm per se, but Kentucky Route Zero is one of those pieces of media you need to experience. Comparing it to similar works runs a bit of a risk as well, as it can't really be compared. Let's do it anyways.
Throughout Ulysses, you're led on a journey through Dublin but the reader doesn't shout out errant turns to Joyce the driver. This isn't entirely on the mark for KR0, each episode is delivered complete and only the most enterprising might sift through the code to make their own appendix. The road is paved but the player still has to make the turn.
Episode III of KR0 could start with any number of factors in and out of play, but regardless of what you've chosen from the many opaque options presented, eventually an electro-clash duo playfully hornswaggles your little group out to the Lower Depths tavern. If they don't have an audience, they don't play, you see.
At this point it's easy to be unsure of what to expect. Ambience and bluegrass rule the rest of the game's soundtrack so far, so when the simple drum machine and layered 80's Moog's rise like the tide, "Too Late to Love You" bridges the familiar music with the hypnotic narrative.
The lyrics here, along with those from the other songs with vocals, are not exactly bursting with sunshine. The inevitability of the void seems to be the primary focus. Episode III's soundtrack cover art is a tipped bottle with skeletons dancing in the puddle. Wasted time, squandered love, mistakes and regrets dominate, but even under all this pallor the song soars.
In the game, you choose the direction of the lyrics as "Too Late to Love You" unfolds. Things are built on your whim, and maybe it's best you went in not knowing this, but whatever, spoilers are bullshit. Because being unaware of this means you can't prepare, so maybe even in your making of this song you feel you chose poorly. Second guesses build until it's over, the desolate bar ringing out with synth, the chance to love you having passed.
The lyrics you choose don't give much wiggle room outside of lost love's lament, but the vocals belie the pain a little bit. There's that operatic, Bjork vocal swagger crouched in the sounds of Twin Peaks (not the first cross-reference between these two I'm sure), the pain that can't help but escape, but in that escape, relief. The darkness of night swells, but it's a kind of necessary darkness for the light to exist. It's too late to love you now, but love is on the table, and the tide always ebbs back.
You should also watch the video of the scene in action, it's a whole package here. A metaphor of live music/art's potential for transcendence, a rare and cherishable thing. Those dance moves. That dress. The peeling roof.
Pygmy Lush comes from a deep-rooted family tree, and their sound is fragmented even within this one band name. I came to them through Malady, while many others probably through pg.99, but the best of Pygmy Lush disintigrates the sound of all of their prior bands.
In the '90s, everyone was required to have a passionate opinion about Nirvana one way or the other, in the '00s we pretended they didn't exist, and now most acknowledge that respect is due.
This cover of "Serve the Servants" highlights what Pygmy Lush has pretty much mastered, breaking down a song's essense to the bare essentials. Their methods are perfectly suited for a Nirvana song since they're all exercises in pop-precision. As J Church said, "repetition is a cheap yet convincing / a cheap yet convincing disguise". Pygmy Lush removes the disguise and splays open the raw heart that was always Nirvana's source of power.
The bitter, cynical bite of the original takes on more of a slow, subtle poison in Pygmy Lush's version. Lyrics like:
"Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I'm bored and old
Self-appointed judges judge
More than they have sold"
already pretty difficult to misinterpret, become more of the lament that I feel they always were. Pygmy Lush, with their taste of success in pg.99, certainly understand the double-edged sword of teenage angst and hardcore loyalty. As a band though, Pygmy Lush definitely carries a resigned sense of age, the same sense found in the later verse:
"As my bones grew they did hurt
They hurt really bad
I tried hard to have a father
But instead I had a dad"
Tied again to the growing body of a teenager, stretching bones shift from being a sign of puberty to that of decline. Only age can offer the perspective offered here; a teenager suffers without a father but most likely doesn't recognize that loss until nearing the cusp of parenthood.
Which is what Pygmy Lush lays down throughout their version. The brief wail of teenage noise at the beginning then leads to a slow draw up through experience and life. A bitter splitting apart, friendship, lovers, family, it all breaks down, though the gentle guitar structure remains. Time marches, ebbs, builds, crescends. But the build up at the end is the kicker for me. We bawl through the pain of youth, the wail flares up again as we realize time lost, responsibilities creeping up on us, becoming our parents, serving the servants. Oh no.
The real pleasure in this song for me is that it's a subtle haunting. "A Good Day to Hide," another of my favorite Pygmy Lush jams, is more obviously dark, the cathartic expulsion of depression. But Nirvana's pop-chops were without peer, having studied the best, and the simple beauty of these melodies remain. Pygmy Lush lightly fractures them, exposing the sweet marrow in the bones.